LEICESTER CITY vs MANCHESTER UNITED
A mixed pre-season with postponed games and various players reporting for duty at different times meant that the big question going into this game was would United be ready. New players, new methods and varying levels of fitness suggested that they would not be, but it was important that United put down a marker for the season against the champions. This was a test too for Leicester, who well would they cope with the mantle of being champions.
Full United team: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Shaw, Carrick, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Martial and Ibrahamovic.
- United controlled this game for long periods, they looked comfortable, had the lion’s share of possession and actually at times looked a little Van Gaal like. Pursuing last season’s game plan Leicester looked to transitions to try to hit United on the break but with minimal impact.
- United’s play was more side to side than in previous pre-season games with less vertical passing through the centre of the pitch than recently. Funnelled the ball wide Martial and especially Lingard had lively games, supported by Shaw and Valencia respectively. Generally United threatened more on the left than on the right. It was Ironic then that the winning goal came via a cross from the right.
- The relationship between Ibrahimovic and Rooney needs more work. At times they seemed to be occupying each other’s zones and so United’s play in the final third was disjointed. On a couple of occasions Zlatan laid passes off that teammates failed to read. Understandable as it takes time to integrate new teammates.
- Leicester’s best period came in the second half as United’s lack of fitness and so sharpness told. After United gifted them a goal via a poor back pass they asserted themselves and United had to dig in. Despite this Leicester only really looked a threat at set pieces where United struggled to compete in the air.
- Eric Bailly had a great game, for long periods he eliminated any threat from Vardy, who only caused problems when the referee favoured him.
There were one or two surprise selections here at the start of the game. Lingard featured in place of Mkhitaryan on the right and Fellaini partnered Carrick in central midfield. Perhaps the selection reflected levels of fitness within the squad or perhaps it was in deference to players who contributed to last year’s FA Cup success?
Uniteds first half shape and Luke Shaw back in competitive action
United set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Ibrahomvic ahead of Rooney, whilst Leicester retained their successful 4-4-1-1 strategy from last season. It was a tight game in the opening quarter with space at a premium. United though saw plenty of the ball and generally circulated it at a good tempo. Much of this was side to side however demonstrating that old habits die hard. At the same time however this may have been a reflection of the fact that this was where the space was. This was the case because Ibrahimovic and Rooney both tended to drop deep to involve themselves with play resulting in a congested middle of the pitch. The fact that United moved the ball at a good tempo however meant that the wide players, often the fullbacks had opportunities to push on and run at Leicester in wide areas. United had more luck with this on their right than left and this was perhaps because Shaw adopted a more cautious approach in response to the threat of Mahrez.
Leicester on their part adopted last season’s game plan, sitting deep and then looking to strike on the break, usually through an early ball in the direction of Vardy. Vardy found himself up against Eric Bailly making his competitive debut. Bailly played really well. He showed himself to be quick and strong and in the first half Vardy got little change out of him. On a couple of occasions Vardy tried to muscle his way past but United’s new man stood his ground and was equal to the physical challenge. He also read the game well leading to a couple of important interceptions and his winning a number of key headers.
Then United scored. It was noticeable that on both sides of the pitch United’s wide players were looking to run inside at any opportunity. This was helping to generate the space that was available for the fullbacks to advance. Lingard generally had more success in the first half than Martial, but it often came to nothing as United’s play lacked composure in the final third. Once United reached this area their passing often seemed rushed resulting in their losing possession. In deeper areas they tended to retain the ball. It was perhaps inevitable that the goal would come from a situation where a player ran with the ball. Lingard picked up the ball near the half way line and instead of looking to pass made a fairly direct run down the middle of the pitch. He had the strength and pace to ride the tackles of three Leicester players before striking the ball past Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. 32 minutes played, Boom! 1-0. Would Lingard have scored that goal if Kante still played for Leicester? Who knows? Who cares?
There are a couple of other points to make about the first half. Firstly the relationship and roles of Ibrahimovic and Rooney needs work. Rooney here was the number 10 with Zlatan ahead. He kept dropping deep into Rooney’s zone, in fact often deeper than Rooney. Ibrahimovic likes to involve himself in the play and he often showed signs that he can link play well. But as previously described this led to a congested middle of the pitch. If he does this then Rooney needs to push on ahead of him or the play will all be in front of the oppositions defence. At this stage of his career is Rooney able to do this or would a better strategy be for Ibrahimovic to start as a number 10 with a quicker forward to push ahead; Rashford or Martial perhaps? Where would that leave Rooney?
The other point to make was that even in the first half and despite a better passing tempo than last year Leicester looked fitter and sharper than United. This contributed to United’s disjointed play in the final third where Leicester seemed to anticipate passes more quickly. United were often second to the loose ball and didn’t often generate second phase attacking moves as a consequence.
Despite this at half-time it was 1-0 to United.
Between the teams and including the two made at half time Leicester and United made 12 substitutions in the second half. That many substitutions is always going to impact upon the flow of the game as teams necessarily adjust to the changes. Nevertheless the two made by Leicester at halftime Gray for Albrighton and Musa for Okazaki changed the game for Leicester. Both players increased the pace of Leicester’s play and as a consequence they instantly took a step forward with United taking a step back. The introduction of Musa who they have just signed from CSKA Moscow meant that they now had two lightening quick forwards to confront Bailly and Blind. Perhaps this was the reason that Bailly looked less secure against Vardy after the break. Blind isn’t the quickest which meant that Bailly had to keep a weather eye on both forwards at all times.
Leicester played quicker and higher and this contributed to their goal as this naturally put United’s midfield and back line under increased pressure. That pressure resulted in a mistake, (a loose back pass) and a goal as Fellaini alert to a Musa run won the ball but layed a short back pass to De Gea. Vardy picked this up and scored. 1-1.
This goal was scored after 52 minutes , and for a few minutes after Leicester were noticeably more assertive and had their best period of the match. In response Mourinho made changes of his own introducing Herrera for Carrick after 61 minutes and Mata for the now limping Lingard a minute later. In terms of team shape these were both straight swaps but Herrera gave United more energy in midfield where Leicester appeared to be gaining an upper hand. At the same time as the Mata change Leicester also made two further substitutions introducing Kante’s replacement Mendy for King and Hernandez for Danny Simpson. Mendy looks the part, quick, alert and decisive in the tackle, United got little out of his area of the pitch thereafter. Eight minutes later Mourinho introduced Rojo in place of Shaw.
Uniteds shape around the hour mark and Mata a second half substitute later removed
We make no apologies for listing this wave of substitutions as there were so many that they did impact upon the flow of the game and certainly disrupted the pattern of the game as Leicester were getting on top. Was this a deliberate ploy by Mourinho? Quite possibly. In the post-match press conference Mourinho has made the point that United’s levels dropped in the second half because they aren’t yet fully match fit. This is clearly true, Leicester looked sharper throughout and some players were fading. He chose to keep Ibrahimovic on however and he certainly seemed to be operating in a low gear, throughout the match but certainly by this point. At this stage of the game he started to drop a lot deeper and then when United introduced Rashford for the fading Martial on 70 minutes he stayed deeper. In this position he showed some good vision linking play and moving the ball from one side to the other. Mata tended to come narrow and this meant that United had bodies in the middle of the pitch to equalise the Leicester activity in this area.
There was one more substitution before United scored again with Shlupp replacing Fuch on 80 minutes. That goal came in the 83rd minute. The ball was fed out to Valencia on the right. He seemed to hesitate and you thought he was going to recycle the ball inside as he might well have been coached to do last season. Leicester may have thought this too and this allowed him half a yard of space to stand a cross up into the middle where Ibrahimovic was able to out jump Morgan and head back and into the goal across Schmeichel via the inside of the post. Boom! 2-1. Valencia’s fourth assist in three games.
Leicester now threw everything at United throwing caution to the wind, Schmeichel even came up for a couple of set plays. Their approach was to load the final third and launch high balls and throw ins into the box. United stood firm. There were three further substitutions in the last three minutes; two by United as Mourinho attempted to disrupt the game and run down the clock. Others have attempted to read more into the substitution of Mata, himself an earlier substitute.
This is nonsense with this move just being a classic example of Mourinho’s pragmatism. It got the job done.
This wasn’t a great display but whilst there is still a lot to work on there were some really encouraging signs in this performance. Jose Mourinho has concentrated on strengthening the spine of the side and that looked really strong here. United controlled the game and possession until their lack of fitness told in the second half. There was a lot more proactive attacking intent than we saw last year, although safe square passing was still an issue at times. United’s attacking intent often didn’t quite come off but so what, it will come. When moves broke down the strengthening of the spine meant that United did not look vulnerable to Leicester’s usually potent break-away.
Eric Bailly had an excellent game. He took Vardy and nullified his threat. He clearly had the pace to deal with the Leicester man but also had the strength and guile. He gave United’s defence a much more solid look, even if they did struggle to compete in the air on set plays.
Further forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have seemed to have been having a fairly ineffectual game prior to his winning goal. But that was an illusion. His teammates might not be on his wavelength yet leading to plenty of misplaced passes and there is clearly lots of work to do on his relationship with Rooney, but he was always showing for the ball and attempting to link play front to back, side to side. Then he scored. Boom! It’s Zlatan time!